The day before Lent descends. With a litany of names.
Mardi Gras. Fat Tuesday. Boeuf Gras. Shrove Tuesday.*
Boeuf Gras? Symbol of the fattened ox, the last meat devoured before Lenten stringency took hold. With roots in the Minotaur and Labyrinth myth.
What really drove the Lenten fast? And how did Boeuf Gras begin?
During the Middle Ages, and later, the Lenten dietary restrictions of the Roman Catholic Church demanded strict adherence to an austere menu best eaten by cloistered monks and nuns.
Imagine the secret weeping behind closed doors, as the day few people really wanted came to pass, with longful gazes at the sausages and hams hanging from smoky, wooden-beamed ceilings. Furtive licking of fingers coated with butter.
The cleaning of the larders** and the tightening of the belt, the sweeping away of the physical world, turning instead to the contemplation of the world beyond the senses.
A time for thinking deeply about the soul and the vast, unknowable abyss.
The idea was to eat up all the fatty food prior to the severe restrictions of Lent. Hard as it is to believe anyone ever advocated eating fat, it happened. People devised recipes using up all the prohibited foods. In the days before refrigeration, what else could they do? And even though the weather might have been freezing in the Northern Hemisphere of the time, the temperature did not remain consistently cold enough to maintain foods like our modern freezers do. Salted and smoked foods, of course, remained in storerooms (larders**), awaiting the coming of spring and Easter.
The other side of the Lenten issue lies with the fact that until an early harvest, the food supply dwindled as the winters strung out. By imposing dietary laws, the Church actually did the people a favor — what food they had lasted longer and averted outright starvation. Most of the time.
No wonder that Mardi Gras, and all the celebrations attached to the day, captured the enthusiasm and support of the peasantry and the nobility, too.
The Boeuf Gras suggests that the raucous day before Lent traces it roots to ancient Greece and myths with an unwritten history.
In actuality, the Boeuf Gras of medieval France foretold today’s New Orleans’ carnival. The whole idea began around 1512 as a spoof on the Church and its dignitaries.
Perry Young, author of The Mystic Krewe (1931), writes, “In France, at the Fete du Soleil, the Druids sacrificed a young bull, which was led through the streets covered with garlands of leaves and flowers. … This spring festival later gave way to the Roman carnival, and under the French kings, their bull became the Boeuf Gras, favorite and best-loved symbol of the fete.”
The Boeuf Gras, decorated with branches and flowers like bulls led to the sacrifice in the ancient days, now promenades through the streets of Paris and other towns, including Bazas in the Pays Basque, where Bazas beef entrecote pulls in the crowds at the Boeuf Gras fair. The bulls do end up sacrificed after being serenaded in front of butcher shops throughout the town. Pot-au-feu also tops the menus of the day.
According to anthropologist Earl W. Count, the “king” of the carnival “… had a retinue; like hoboes on a spree, these ancestors of ours squawked an ‘anthem,’ danced about the donkey, and hied themselves to the church or cathedral where they performed a slapstick mass. The choir was vested in … robes turned inside out; they wore orange peels for spectacle rims; they held their music sheets upside down and [gave] gibberish responses to the ‘bishop’ who read the service.”
As Barbara Ehrenreich points out in her fascinating book, Dancing in the Streets, the peasants’ carnival and other public festivities slyly mocked the ruling classes. When the realization dawned on the aristocracy, down came the edicts prohibiting the festivities.
Under Charlemagne, breaking the Lenten fast could result in death, and as late as Queen Elizabeth’s time, Protestant as she was, butchers could not slaughter animals during Lent. If they did, the fine they paid — £20.00 — could ruin them financially.
An exploration of the cow cult might prove to be a fascinating mid-winter exercise, wouldn’t it? Think minotaurs and Europa and the Labyrinth myth.
So, like the Italians with their variations on fried dough, the French also produce fried delicacies, using up eggs, flour, and oil in the process. In Lyons, this fried dough went by the name of bugnes and still does.
Slabs of meat, sausages, butter, eggs, oil, wine. Feast amidst famine.
[Note: A recipe based on chef Daniel Boulud’s mother’s recipe.]
1 ½ T. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 t. sugar
Large pinch of salt
1 large egg
Grated zest of 1 navel orange
¼ t. baking powder
1 cup plus 2 T. all-purpose flour
3 T. whole milk
Peanut oil for frying
Confectioner’s sugar for dusting
Beat butter, sugar, and salt together. Add the egg and mix in well. Toss in the zest and beat well. Add baking powder to the flour, stir well. Alternating milk with the flour, add flour and milk to the sugar mixture. The dough will be stiff. Knead into a ball and place in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least one hour, but best to leave it overnight in the fridge.
Flour a cookie sheet. Roll the dough out on a floured board to between 1/8 and ¼ inch thick. Cut dough into 2-inch wide strips and then cut into diamonds on the diagonal at 2-inch intervals. Then cut a 1 ½-inch slit in the center of each diamond. Pull one corner through the slit, like a knot. Let the bugnes rest, covered on the floured cookie sheet.
Heat 4 inches of oil in a pot and maintain temperature at 350 F. When oil is hot enough (use an instant-read thermometer to make sure), drop in 4-5 bugnes and cook about 2 minutes per side, until bugnes look golden. Drain on paper towels. Repeat with all bugnes. Sprinkle while still warm with a thick coating of confectioner’s sugar. Best when served still warm.
*Another name for the day before Lent is Shrove Tuesday, or Shrovetide. To be shriven meant to be cleansed in one’s soul prior to beginning the Lenten season.
** Larders, meaning fat storage places, from Latin “lardarium” or “room for meats,” with lardum (bacon) kicking in a bit of influence; first used in Anglo-French around 1300.
© 2011 C. Bertelsen